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How Can Everything Look so Different, Yet so the Same?

Cross-posted from Eduwonk.

The new Early Learning Challenge is being referred to in some quarters as "Race to the Top for early childhood education." That's quite literally true, in the sense that the Early Learning Challenge is being funded out of a pool of funds appropriated this year specifically for Race to the Top (with Congressional language indicating an intention to use some of these funds for early childhood). But folks in the early childhood community were actually analogizing the early learning challenge grant to Race to the Top before that-when the program was initially proposed as a component of the SAFRA student aid reform legislation (from which it was jettisoned at the last minute due to rising Pell grant costs-just one example of why we should worry that Pell, without changes to current policy, will ultimately cannibalize other education funding).

Early Learning Challenge is, in fact, designed on the same basic principles as RTT: The feds articulate a series of system priorities they'd like to see state policies address, and award funds on a competitive basis to states that have the best plan for and have made the most progress on addressing those priorities.

Moreover, Early Learning Challenges priorities and focus are actually quite similar to those of RTT. The "4 assurances" of RTT I were:

  • College- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments (addressed in Section B of the RTT grant criteria)
  • Data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement (addressed in Section C of the RTT criteria)
  • Teacher effectiveness (Section D of the criteria)
  • Turning around low-performing schools (Section E of the criteria)

Early Learning Challenge came into being because Congress, in the 2011 appropriations, created a "sixth assurance" in Race to the Top focused on early childhood, but the proposed Early Learning Challenge Criteria actually line up very closely with the original 4 RTT assurances:

  • Standards and assessments (Section B of the proposed criteria asks states to put in place statewide early learning and development systems, kindergarten entry assessments, and to support the use of comprehensive assessment systems to improve early childhood quality)
  • Data systems (Section A of the proposed criteria asks states to have in place high-quality data systems that collect a wide range of data on early childhood programs, participating children, and staff, and to link that data with the state's K-12 and postsecondary data systems)
  • Great Early Childhood Educators (Section D of the proposed criteria focuses on improving the skills of the early childhood workforce)

The biggest difference here is that Early Learning Challenge does not exactly include RTT's emphasis on identifying and closing low-performing schools, but instead asks states to create Quality Rating and Improvement Systems designed to improve quality across the full spectrum of early childhood settings.

But there are two deeper ways in which the Early Learning Challenge and RTT are similar:

First, both programs are primarily about building state-level systems and policies. In contrast to programs like the Clinton-era signature class size reduction, ELC and RTT do not translate directly into specific things we might want to see kids experience in schools and classrooms. Rather they seek to drive state infrastructure and policy environment that incent and supports local-level progress to improve children's educational outcomes. That's a strategy that recognizes the real limitations of federal and state power to drive educational improvement. But it can also make these programs seem a little confusing-and even counter-intuitive to some observers, particularly on the ground educators. (That's why, for example, you see comments asking things like "Where is play in this proposal?") One challenge for the ed reform field generally is to better communicate to parents, educators, and the public how system-level efforts like this are supposed to translate into more concrete changes on the ground that people care most about.

Second, and related, both Race to the Top and Early Learning Challenge are betting big on system-level strategies that are actually somewhat risky. At the end of the day, Race to the Top's signature policy initiative, what it will stand or fall on, is the creation of new systems of teacher evaluation based substantially on teachers' student achievement impacts. Early Learning Challenge's signature initiative will be state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS), designed to improve quality across the spectrum of early childhood settings by rating them against clearly defined levels of quality, providing transparent quality information to parents and the public, and creating incentives for programs to move up the levels of quality.

Both of these strategies-Teacher Evaluation and QRIS-are based on robust evidence about what matters in education and/or child care quality. Both also have a logical sense: If educational systems do a better job of identifying quality/effectiveness, rewarding the most effective teachers/providers, and creating incentives for teachers/programs to get better, then those changes to make the system more quality-sensitive should ultimately lead to better outcomes. All that said, it's important to understand that we don't have a clear base of evidence yet that either of these strategies "works" in the sense of documented improvements in student/child outcomes linked to that strategy. As my fellow Ed Week blogger Rick Hess has written, that's not entirely the right frame in which to think about these types of system strategies. But it's also important for proponents of either improved teacher evaluations or QRIS to have a degree of humility around what we do and don't know about the impacts of these particular strategies in practice. And to also recognize that both teacher evaluation and QRIS are complex systems to implement-that we don't necessarily know the "right" answers to all the complex implementation questions involved, and that the process of putting these systems in place will be inherently messy and iterative, and will involve some false steps and mistakes.

For more analytic discussion of the similarities/differences between ELC and RTT, check out this from my former colleagues at the New America Foundation.

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